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Petrarch and the poetics of ascesis

posted on 15.02.2018, 02:04 by Nina Ella Reicher
The writings of Francis Petrarch (1304-74) have been and continue to be variously interpreted and reinterpreted by scholars. Focusing on perhaps the two most discussed and debated of his works, the Secretum and the letter on the Ascent of Mont Ventoux, together with the thematically and chronologically linked De otio religioso and De vita solitaria (collectively designated here as the writer's 'monastic-ascetic oeuvre'), this dissertation offers a theorisation of the more or less peculiar problematic posed by Petrarch's writing. It is argued that while any literary text or texts by any author may conceivably be subject, at the discretion of creative readers, to a potentially indefinite range of interpretations, what is different about Petrarch's is that they seem to elicit such interpretive indeterminacy. It is demonstrated that, through their creatively divergent and dynamically unresolved engagement with a number of textual and existential/spiritual models, in which the main casualty is the exemplarity and didacticism implicit in those models, Petrarch's monastic-ascetic works maintain an ambiguous literary/aesthetic autonomy. Petrarch, it is contended, is ever the creative writer; his monastic-ascetic texts, ever literary works of art. Then, drawing on the theme of those texts in order to characterise their literary-ascetic "strategy," it is suggested that monastic asceticism, particularly the discourse of early Christian desert eremitism, bears resonance with them not just as a theme or subject but also in terms of their textual characteristics. Indeed, it is proposed that the dynamic of (eremitic) ascesis presents, as it were, a discursive paradigm; one embodied in Petrarch's monastic-ascetic oeuvre.


Principal supervisor

Clare Monagle

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

School of Historical Studies


Master of Arts by Research

Degree Type



Faculty of Arts